In the fall of 2006, Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and his pal Gary Ginsberg, now an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., began working on a list of the 50 most influential rabbis in the U.S. The friends devised the following unscientific criteria to rank the leaders, whose specialties range from kashrut to Kabbalah: Are they known nationally/internationally? (20 points.) Do they have political/social influence? (20 points.) Do they have a media presence? (10 points.) Are they leaders within their communities? (10 points.) Are they considered leaders in Judaism or their movements? (10 points. ) How big are their constituencies? (10 points.) Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career? (10 points.) Have they made a greater impact beyond the Jewish community and their rabbinical training? (10 points.) NEWSWEEK published that first list around Passover, 2007, with this caveat: “Is the list subjective? Yes. Is it mischievous in its conception? Definitely.” Now in its fourth year, Lynton and Gisberg’s list includes eight fresh names and a new rebbe in the top spot.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Unfortunately it is human nature to let extremism cut both ways. While a moderate often refuses to take a defined stand on anything, an extremist will have a firm opinion about everything and a refusal to budge from it. The problem with Chabad's extremism is that its desire to bring Jews back to Judaism is matched by a belief that their Judaism is the only real kind.
As Rav Shmuely Boteach, former black sheep of the movement, notes in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post:
I knew then in theory what I just witnessed in practice: Chabad emissaries would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness of their vision and the passion with which they pursued their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate people about their tradition, but Chabad sought to raise all Earth’s inhabitants to a higher God-consciousness, and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life.
The passionate dedication of the Chabad emissaries was infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather, it coursed through their veins, seeping out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of God and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality were grafted onto the average Chabad activist’s very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of his or her character and personality.
WITNESSING THE fulfillment of that promise at the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew in to attend the Jewish federations’ annual General Assembly but bypassed the Chabad conference. If an Israeli prime minister wants to be part of the unfolding of modern Jewish history, he has to address Chabad. No other organization even comes close to its global reach or grassroots impact. And it is growing exponentially.
They don't read newspapers and are unlikely to care about what Rav Boteach says but one can imagine going to the Rebbes of Ger, Belz and Satmar (both of them), all of them significantly larger in size than Lubavitch despite a total lack of outreach, and telling them: "Did you know that Chabad is Judaism?"
Indeed, Rav Boteach should know this. All the shluchim should know that theirs is not the largest sect within Orthodox Judaism and that within the Chareidi community they are relegated to the fringe with the Bratzlovers, a kooky sect that might be scrupulous in the performance of some mitzvos but which endorse beliefs and worldviews unacceptable to the main group.
Then there's the Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi who would also be shocked to know that they are not Judaism. Never mind the pantheon of thinkers and towering figures they lay claim to. Never mind all the learning and practice. They aren't Judaism because they're not Chabad?
Yet there is the other side that Rav Boteach mentions and must be emphasized. As Rav David Berger notes in his book on the subject, Chabad is expanding within significant parts of the Jewish community through a clever strategy. Just as leftists realized long ago that if one infiltrates the school system to ensure that children are raised with a socialist/politically correct philosophy so as to create a large group of support later on, Chabad realized long ago that going where no frum Jews could be found was like mining for gold. There is a reason Chabad is found in isolated small Jewish communities that no one else pays attention to, why they show up on campuses even in cities with a large Torah-observant population and why they pay so much attention to Jewish communities and travellers in such places as Russia and India.
Generally one does not find Chareidim in these places since they prefer large centres where they have resources, yeshivos and other such supports. One doese not find Dati Leumi there either since the movement's focus is on Eretz Yisrael, not golus. Asd a result, if you're a non-religious Jew living in a small town in the American mid-west, or a student venturing onto a university campus, or a villager someone in Siberia, chances are the only frum Jew you'll ever meet is a Chabad shaliach.
The consequence of this is obvious - if all you ever want from the Chabadnik is chicken soup on Friday night and the occasional raucous Purim party, that's fine but if you want to learn more about Judaism you will be introduced to Torah observance but through the Chabad lens which is, in many ways exhaustively documented elsewhere, different from conventional Torah observance. What's more, you will be taught that theirs is, like Rav Boteach say, the Judaism of our ancestors, the only real type, the kind that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, brought down from Har Sinai.
One might raise an objection by pointing out that Aish HaTorah and Ohr Sameach are hardly different in that approach to kiruv. This is definitely true. Ask an Aish or Ohr rav about the age of the Earth and you will be told the only legitimate answer is 5771 years. They won't teach you about the Rav or Rav Kook either in those places.
But the significant difference is that Aish and Ohr generally restrict themselves to large communties, as I noted above regarding Chareidim in general. You won't find Aish in Woebegone, Minnesota. You just might find Chabad.
Through their kiruv, Chabad is indeed working very hard to present a specific type of Torah Judaism to the non-religious masses who don't know about the depth and variety of Torah observance. They are working hard to convince the multitudes that Nusach Ari is the only siddur God hears you pray and that a certain deceased rabbinical figure really is the Moshiach, that it is a fundamental principle of Judaism and an actualhalacha to believe this, and that he is just waiting for the opportunity to reveal himself and bring the final salvation.
That Chabadniks don't realize that Judaism is far bigger than them and that their beliefs are not standard in the rest of the Torah community is regrettable. That the rest of the Torah Jewish community is sitting back while they divert our non-religious brethren into their narrow camp isn't.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Through a high school friend, Boiles began learning about an alternate way for gentiles to serve G-d. And with the help of Michael Schulman, a Lubavitch physicist in Pittsburgh, she found spiritual guidance, as well as a community.
Boiles is a Noahide, a gentile who follows the seven commandments that G-d gave to Noah and his children after the flood to ensure order in the world. The laws prohibit (1) idolatry, (2) blasphemy, (3) homicide, (4) forbidden sexual relations, (5) robbery, and (6) eating meat taken from a live animal (cruelty to animals) and require (7) establishment of courts of justice.
“There are two paths to serve G-d and to have a reward in the world to come,” Schulman said, “that of the Jew, and that of the non-Jew. The Noahide has seven commandments given as part of the Torah. If a gentile accepts these seven commandments, the person recognizes that these are coming from G-d, so that’s his path.”
Schulman has been running a Noahide outreach organization, Ask Noah International (ANI), since 1999. Although he was employed as a senior research engineer from 1988 through 2006, he no longer works as a physicist, and is devoted full time to Ask Noah.
The organization, founded by Chaim Reisner, also of Pittsburgh, boasts an extensive website (asknoah.org), with educational and outreach materials and essays, and fields the questions of those interested in the Noahide laws. Schulman and Reisner also work to connect Noahides with each other, helping them find community.
Boiles was attracted to the Noahide commandments after being inspired from a verse in Genesis where G-d tells Cain he will be forgiven if he improves himself.
“This was contrary to Christianity,” Boiles said, “In Christianity, you can only be forgiven through a blood sacrifice — through Jesus Christ. I didn’t know there was another option. I didn’t know that under the umbrella of Judaism there is a place for non-Jews.”
“G-d doesn’t require man to go through Jesus. You can go straight to G-d. That’s liberating for me,” she said.
At age 61, Larry Telencio, of Naples, Fla., having rejected his Christian background, was searching for meaning. He found ANI on the Internet and now studies the universal laws, as well as Torah, although “not too deeply. Deep delving into the Torah is forbidden to a gentile,” he said.
“The Noahide path was basically all the things I believed in,” Telencio said. “I believe in one G-d, and Hashem is the only G-d.”
While the Lubavitch are known for their efforts of outreach to other Jews, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, saw a mandate to reach out to gentiles as well, Schulman said.
Although the sages of the Talmud understood the importance of spreading the word of G-d to gentiles, that duty was suppressed for centuries in favor of “self-preservation,” Schulman said, after the Jews’ exile following the destruction of the temples. About 30 years ago, Jews began to resume the mission of educating non-Jews.
“In the 1980s, the Rebbe said the time has come, and societies are open enough. Jewish people have success in the world. There is a new obligation to pick it up again,” Schulman said.
The Lubavitch decided to take up the cause to ensure the Noahide laws were conveyed to non-Jews in accordance with the Torah.
“There were others outside Lubavitch that took this up more quickly than Lubavitch groups,” Schulman said. “They were spreading the seven commandments, but in some cases, they were not properly educated. In some other cases, they had their own agendas. There needed to be a dedicated Torah-based organization that has oversight to take up this message.”
Schulman became involved with spreading the word of the Noahide laws when Reisner sought some help with his fledgling website.
“I became the webmaster,” Schulman said, “and from there, I started seeing how much this was needed. I saw the [Noahide] movement was going offtrack, and saw that it needed to go on the path of a Torah teacher.”
The movement is growing, according to Schulman, and is becoming more widely accepted, although there is a notable lack of Noahide communities in the United States, and Noahides here must go to the Internet to find other Noahides with whom to connect.
Noahides in other countries, such as the Philippines, the United Kingdom and Kenya, have had more success in building Noahide communities, Schulman said. While these communities do not have rabbis, they have community leaders who aid with learning Chumash and Tanach.
Schulman has developed a set of courses on Noahide principles of the commandments and faith, and, more recently, has been putting together appropriate prayer services to help these communities.
He is also helping to edit a comprehensive codification of the commandments.
“The Rebbe wanted a codification of the Noahide commandments, like the Code of Jewish Law,” Schulman said. “The Rebbe said there should be one for the Noahide communities.”
Codification of the Noahide laws has become one of Schulman and Reisner’s “major goals,” Schulman said, and they recruited Torah scholar Rabbi Moshe Weiner to take on the project. While Weiner thought he would be able to complete the project in a year, it has taken four years to cover just the first six of the seven commandments. In 2007, ANI published volume one, covering the first three commandments, and the principles of faith, and in 2008, the second volume, covering the second three commandments, was published.
While some Noahides do aspire to convert, most are content living as non-Jews, following the Noahide laws.
“It is not a goal at all to encourage conversion,” Schulman said, “although some do decide to go down that road. Most people just want to connect with the truth.”
Both Telencio and Boiles appreciate Schulman’s help in connecting them with a virtual Noahide community.
“There are no other Noahides in Naples,” Telencio said. “Most of my contacts are through the Internet.”
And community, wherever one finds it, is important, especially after leaving behind the religion in which one is raised.
“When you leave Christianity and the church, you lose community,” Boiles said. “And my family has been a problem. But I had to do it. Now I see that my job is to align myself with Jews, and that we have a collective mission.
“I’m very magnetically drawn to Judaism. Part of me yearns for conversion, but I take this very seriously. Right now my path is as a righteous gentile, and to serve Hashem.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
1.Yehuda Krinsky—As the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Krinsky is the contemporary face of the Hasidic branch. (2009 Ranking No. 4)
2.Eric Yoffie—Yoffie represents 1.5 million Jews in more than 900 synagogues in his role as president of the Union of Reform Judaism. (2009 Ranking No. 8)
3.Marvin Hier—Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Hier is No. 3 for his tireless work combating issues such as anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. Hier’s many connections with major world leaders, politicians, and entertainment-industry bigwigs give him an international platform from which to speak on various matters affecting the Jewish people. (2009 Ranking No. 2 )
4.Mark Charendoff—A leading authority on the future of Jewish philanthropy, Charendoff serves as president of the Jewish Funders Network, an international organization of family foundations, public philanthropies, and individual funders. (2009 Ranking No. 3)
5.David Saperstein—Having just completed his term as the only rabbi serving on President Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Saperstein continues to act as a major influence in Washington in his role as director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. (2009 Ranking No. 1)
6.Schmuley Boteach—Calling himself “America’s Rabbi,” Boteach continues to share his views on marriage, parenting, and relationships with the world, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, counseling various celebrities in their times of crisis and releasing his most recent book, The Michael Jackson Tapes. (2009 Ranking No. 7)
7.Irwin Kula—Kula, a bestselling author who serves as co-president of CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), is nationally known for his commitment to reshaping America’s spiritual landscape. (2009 Ranking No. 10)
8.David Ellenson—Under Ellenson’s leadership as president, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion continues to develop, train, and support the dynamic Jewish leaders of tomorrow. (2009 ranking No. 5)
9.Robert Wexler—Wexler continues influencing generations of Jewish students and scholars as president of American Jewish University. (2009 Ranking No. 6)
10.Morris Allen—As program director for Magen Tzedek, the ethical kosher seal, Allen is changing the way the world thinks about kashrut and the ethical issues surrounding the hechsher. (NEW)
11.Uri D. Herscher—Herscher is the founder, president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (2009 Ranking No. 9)
12.Norman Lamm—Lamm is the chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York City. (2009 Ranking No. 14)
13.David Wolpe—Considered by many to be the No. 1 pulpit rabbi in America and a major leader of the Conservative movement, Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. (2009 Ranking No. 11)
14.Yehuda Berg—Berg is known as the world’s leading authority on the Kabbalah movement. (2009 Ranking No. 13)
15.Joesph Telushkin—Telushkin is an internationally known bestselling author and speaker. (2009 Ranking No. 15)
16.Menachem Genack—In his role as CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, Genack has steadily supervised and maintained the organization’s stringent kosher requirements throughout a series of recent scandals. (2009 Ranking No. 17)
17.Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus—As president of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis), Dreyfus represents nearly 2,000 Reform rabbis. (2009 Ranking No. 18)
18.Avi Weis—A leading Modern Orthodox rabbi who heads the Hebrew Institute if Riverdale, N.Y., Weiss recently caused a stir in the Orthodox community with his controversial decision to grant his student, Sara Hurwitz, the title of “rabba.” (2009 Ranking No. 38)
19.Jeffrey Wohlberg—Wohlberg is president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. (2009 ranking No. 19)
20.Steve Gutow—Gutow is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public-policy and community-relations coordinating agency of the American Jewish community. (2009 Ranking No. 20)
21.Yehiel Eckstein—As founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Eckstein is recognized as the world’s leading Jewish authority on evangelical Christians. (NEW)
22.J. Rolando Matalon—As senior rabbi for Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, Matalon presides over a congregation of more than 1,800 families. (2009 Ranking No. 16)
23.Dan Ehrenkrantz—In his role as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Ehrenkrantz is recognized as a leading expert in issues pertaining to the Reconstructionist movement and American Jewish history.
24.Haskel Lookstein—Lookstein is principal of New York’s Ramaz School and rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. (2009 Ranking No. 22)
25.Sharon Kleinbaum—Kleinbaum is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Jews. (2009 Ranking No. 25)
26.Jack Moline—Moline, the spiritual leader of Gauds Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., is also the Rabbinical Assembly’s newest director of public policy. (NEW)
27.Steven Wernick—Wernick is the newly appointed executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (NEW)
28.Art Green—As dean of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School, Green is internationally recognized as an authority on Jewish thought and spirituality. (2009 Ranking No. 27)
29.Peter J. Rubinstein—As senior rabbi for New York’s Central Synagogue, Rubinstein presides over a congregation of more than 1,700 families. (2009 Ranking No. 12)
30.M. Bruce Lustig—As senior rabbi for Washington’s largest synagogue, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Lustig presides over a congregation of more than 3,000 members. (2009 Ranking No. 26)
31.Sharon Brous—Founder of Los Angeles’s progressive spiritual community, IKAR, Brous has received international attention and acclaim for her leadership and impact within the Jewish community. (2009 Ranking No. 31)
32.Michael Siegel—In addition to serving as senior rabbi at Chicago’s Anshe Emet congregation, Siegel is also nationally known as the co-chair of the Heksher Tzedek Commission. (NEW)
33.Abraham Cooper—As the associate dean of the Simon Weisenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, Cooper is internationally known as an activist for human and Jewish rights. (2009 Ranking No. 29)
34.Arthur Schneier—Known as the first rabbi to host the pope at his Park East Synagogue in New York, Schneier is also the founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. (2009 Ranking No. 36)
35.Ephraim Buchwald—Buchwald is the founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which aims to address issues such as intermarriage and Jewish assimilation. (2009 Ranking No. 35)
36.Sara Hurwitz—Hurwitz rose to national attention when Rabbi Avi Weiss (No. 18) bestowed her with the title of “rabba.” She is considered the first Orthodox woman rabbi ordained in the United States, and in this role she has had an impact on the roles considered acceptable for modern Orthodox women. (NEW)
37.Kerry M. Olitzky—As executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, Olitzky is one of the leading rabbinical advocates for outreach to interfaith and unaffiliated families in America. (2009 Ranking No. 34)
38.Bradley Shavit Artson—Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. (2009 Ranking No. 40)
39.Naomi Levy—Considered a leader in the Conservative movement, Levy is a nationally recognized speaker and author as well as founder and leader of the Los Angeles-based Jewish outreach organization Nashuva. (2009 Ranking No. 39)
40.Harold Schulweis—In addition to being considered one of the leading voices of the Conservative movement, Schulweis is internationally known for founding Jewish World Watch. (2009 Ranking No. 21)
41.Marc Schneier—Schneier is president and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which seeks to strengthen relationships between ethnic communities in the United States. (2009 Ranking No. 33)
42.Zalman Schacter-Shalomi—Schacter-Shalomi is known as the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement in America. (2009 Ranking No. 45)
43.Elliot Dorff—As chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Dorff serves as the leader of Conservative Judaism’s top lawmaking body. (2009 Ranking No. 41)
44.Bradley Hirschfield—A nationally known proponent for interfaith dialogues and pluralism, Hirschfield is co-president of CLAL. (2009 Ranking No. 42)
45.Steven Leder—In addition to serving as Senior Rabbi at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leder is also a bestselling author. (Returning from 2008)
46.Ed Feinstein—A noted author and speaker, Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. (2009 Ranking No. 44)
47.David Stern—As senior rabbi for Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Stern presides over the largest congregation in the Southwest. (2009 Ranking No. 30)
48.Michael Paley—Paley is the scholar in residence and director of the Jewish Resource Center of the UJA-Federation of New York. (2009 Ranking No. 50)
49.Jill Jacobs—A leading expert in Jewish social-justice issues, Jacobs serves as the rabbi in residence at the Jewish Funds for Justice. (2009 Ranking No. 48)
50.Mark Dratch—As founder of JSafe (The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment), Dratch is a nationally recognized speaker and consultant in matters of domestic violence, child abuse, and professional abuse within the Jewish community. (NEW)
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
WASHINGTON (JTA) --
A Chabad-Lubavitch event is drawing hundreds of emissaries to Washington for meetings with Congress members and Obama administration officials.
The Living Legacy Conference, organized by American Friends of Lubavitch, will take place Wednesday and Thursday.
Guests at the events include top Congress members, such as U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House of Representatives majority leader, and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House minority leader, as well as a number of U.S. senators.
The emissaries will lunch with ambassadors from the nations where they serve; the event is expected to attract emissaries from 40 nations as well as 40 U.S. states.
Private meetings also will be held with top administration officials.
Dressed in a white straw hat, tan chinos and a blue shirt, Samuel Heilman, the co-author of a new book about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, stood at the rebbe’s grave site among scores of pilgrims — a vanguard of the thousands expected to visit on Tuesday, in the Jewish calendar the 16th anniversary of his death — who arrived at a Queens cemetery a few days early to commune with their beloved leader.
“It is very holy,” Mr. Heilman said outside the open-air mausoleum, or ohel, that contains the graves of the rebbe and his father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. Hasidim believe that the spirit of a great sage remains after death, and many Lubavitchers think the rebbe is not only a sage, but also the messiah.
The biography’s look at Schneerson’s personal life is already causing a stir in the continuing discussion about his legacy.
Mr. Heilman pointed to a headstone facing the ohel that refers in Hebrew to the rebbe as “the Messiah of God.”
“It’s etched in stone,” he said. Rabbi Schneerson, the seventh and at this point the last leader of the Chabad Lubavitchers, remains as powerful a presence in death as in life.
Over the course of his more than 40 years as grand rebbe, he transformed this tiny Hasidic sect, with its headquarters in Brooklyn, into an influential global network of Jewish followers and emissaries and turned it into one of the most important religious movements within American Jewry. His life and philosophy are essential to understanding contemporary Jewish life.
Mr. Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College, and Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, offer a view into his world in their new biography, “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson” (Princeton University Press). But they have provoked a growing chorus of complaints from people inside and outside Chabad with their characterization of the rebbe.
Controversy is perhaps inevitable. “Any attempt to humanize the rebbe is going to provoke this reaction.” said Elliot R. Wolfson, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and the author of “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision.”
What some early readers have found most disturbing is the authors’ description of the rebbe as a not especially pious young Hasid. They argue that Rabbi Schneerson’s initial dream was to be an engineer and that he mostly absented himself from Lubavitcher affairs before World War II, living in Berlin and Paris outside of a religious Hasidic community.
Only after he escaped from Europe and arrived in the United States in 1941, when he was a childless refugee with little English and few job prospects, and millions of his people had been massacred did he see he himself as having a different mission, the book contends.
Rabbi Schneerson was a man who “must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God,” the authors write.
Sitting outside the ohel visitor center as a large brown tour bus pulled up, Mr. Heilman, a modern Orthodox Jew, spoke of his “profound respect” for the Lubavitchers but noted that his responsibility as a scholar was not simply to celebrate the rebbe’s accomplishments. “They just can’t accept that he transformed himself, that he was not always going to be the rebbe,” he said.
Mr. Heilman and Mr. Friedman did not have access to Chabad’s private archives, though there is already a monumental amount of published material from and about the rebbe, with a new collection of 1,200 documents soon to be released. The scholars did speak with many movement members, some of whom are now critical of the biography.
Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a Lubavitch spokesman who is thanked in the book, labeled their speculations “psychobabble” and disdained their attempt to put “themselves in the rebbe’s head while ignoring his deeply expressive correspondence and his scholarly approach.”
Other critics take the authors to task for not relying more on published material. Steven I. Weiss, the head of news at the Jewish Channel, a cable television network, criticized the book for presenting what he called lurid details and ignoring a vast amount of “primary material which would frequently contradict its assertions.” He also chastised the authors for not noting outright that Mr. Friedman served as an expert witness against the rebbe during a lawsuit in the 1980s over ownership of the Chabad library. Mr. Heilman said, “We have no ax to grind.”
And Mr. Wolfson of N.Y.U. argued that bypassing the rebbe’s religious writings was a mistake. “There is no question that Menachem Mendel and his wife were spreading their wings” during their sojourn in Paris and Berlin, he said. But the diaries from those years show that he was also completely absorbed in Hasidic thought and Jewish learning. “The world he lived in was completely structured around his ideas,” he said.
Mr. Heilman maintained that Lubavitcher accounts can’t be trusted because they are hagiographies and said that he and Mr. Friedman did not examine the rebbe’s extensive writings on scripture because they were interested in his personal history, not his scholarship.
The American and Israeli professors are colleagues and friends who have independently studied the Lubavitchers for nearly 20 years. It was their wives, though, who suggested in 2007 that the two collaborate on a book while they were all vacationing together in Croatia.
In Mr. Heilman’s eyes, the key to the movement’s success was Rabbi Schneerson’s global vision. He figured out how to permit younger followers to engage with the modern world while remaining true to their Hasidic beliefs. By becoming shluchim, or missionaries, they could spread Lubavitch practices, thereby hastening the arrival of the messiah and redemption.
Rabbi Schneerson told his shluchim not to limit their efforts to the most religious but to every Jew. “They take everyone,” Mr. Heilman said.
More books and biographies are on the way, insuring that the Talmudic-like debate about Rabbi Schneerson’s life will continue.
Monday, June 14, 2010
June 11, 2010
When the congregants walk into the temple, they gaze at the chandeliers hanging from the elevated ceilings, the new marble flooring and the fresh blue paint on the walls. With music playing in the background, they talk and enjoy appetizers and a drink in front of a portrait paying homage to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Within minutes, the foyer is filled with people standing shoulder to shoulder.
When Rabbi Mendy Posner and his wife, Chanie, walk into the temple, they are greeted by congregants with hugs, handshakes and proclamations of "Mazel Tov!" It has been a long time coming, but the family of Chabad Lubavitch of Plantation finally has its own, freestanding temple to call home.
"In this economy, people think it's a nice dream, but no one believed we could pull it off," the rabbi said.
To celebrate the grand opening of the temple, located at 10165 Cleary Blvd., a gala was thrown with about 500 people in attendance, Posner estimated. The social hall was opened up to accommodate the guests in a reception with food, music and memories. A slideshow presentation of past holidays and events was projected onto the wall.
Hugo and Hilda Bamberger, who have been coming to the temple since it opened, attended the gala and said they were blown away by the new building.
"When you pass the outside, you want to go inside. That's what sums it up," Hugo Bamberger said. "It's a wonderful building and we needed it; we were always squeezing."
His wife described her reaction to seeing it for the first time as being "dumbstruck."
Shelley Drujak has been coming to the temple for six years, ever since she was looking to make a change in her religious life. She originally attended a conservative church, and after attending a service at the Chabad, she never left. Drujak said it was the warmth, spirituality and acceptance of the people that drew her to stay. With the new building, she said it was a gift to the community.
"Every nail that went in was because of the rabbi's dream," she said. "He dreamed of it and he made it happen."
The temple is 12,000 square feet, larger than the 800 square feet of the original one that Posner founded in 1993. The groundbreaking was in August 2008, and the rabbi worked closely with an architect to design the building. The new synagogue has children's classrooms, a men's mikvah pool, library, offices for the rabbis, a kitchen and a social hall.
"We feel that we'll be able to offer so much more to the community," Posner said.
At the front of the temple sanctuary stands the Torah ark, which the rabbi hopes to grow in size as well. He wants it to be 36 by 16 feet with the 12 tribes of Israel. But for now, he is worrying about putting the finishing touches on the temple.
Ivor Bamberger, the master of ceremonies for the gala, said the temple is a place for growth in one's Judaism, and the size of the temple shows a need from the growing orthodox community.
"If you build it, people will come," Bamberger told the congregants.
Copyright © 2010, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
By Nehemia Shtrasler
The sight was elevating: 800 neighborhood residents took a break from what they were doing and went out to demonstrate. Their goal: to protect their homes. They weren't asking for much: just to maintain their way of life, the character of their neighborhood, their values, dignity and right to educate their children as they see fit.
Nobody was paying them. They had no political party or foreign sponsors. They collected the money to fund their demonstration themselves because they knew that if they didn't, the missionary group Chabad could continue to slowly take the neighborhood over, just as is happening in Migdal Ha'emek, Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.
A few people set up a counter-demonstration against the 800. They believe that the people in question are merely "good Jews" who just rented a few apartments to preach Torah there. All they want is for us to put on tefillin a little, to light candles on Friday night. What charming simplicity.
They don't realize that it's a well-organized plan to take control of the neighborhood. They aren't even aware that a yeshiva opened in the neighborhood staffed by "messengers" who are prepared to sacrifice their souls for their Rebbe.
These "messengers" have one explicit goal: to return the people of the neighborhood to Judaism. The more Jews keep the Sabbath and follow the mitzvoth, the faster the Messiah will come. Though actually he already did come, in the form of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, according to Chabad. The Rebbe has died in the meantime, but he lives on - their belief system is a mystical, un-Jewish thing, about which the Rabbi Shach commented: "Chabad is the cult closest to Judaism."
As in every neighborhood, here too they identified the most vulnerable point: the young. That's why every Friday they ply the grove by the Alliance school, trying to persuade the children to put on tefillin and drop by the Chabad House for a "conversation." At night they lurk among the trees and on benches for the teens, offering refreshments and sweet talk. They cunningly tell these kids, "You have the soul of a righteous person," and don't cavil at saying that their mothers and fathers are sinners. They even whisper that people who don't honor Shabbat are doomed to hell.
Puberty is a vulnerable stage and some of these kids, who want to rebel against their parents anyway, listen. The nice people of Chabad have no problem taking in a youngster and destroying a family in Israel.
Where are the police and the municipality as strangers badger children among the trees at night?
The Chabadniks understand that the middle class is groaning under its burdens. So they opened a few kindergartens in the neighborhood that charge little and give much, including a hot meal. Some parents succumbed to the temptation - and lost their children. This neighborhood sorely lacks kindergartens without religious affiliation. But the city allows Chabad to open one kindergarten after another, even at the expense of a building that had been a cultural center until two years ago.
These Chabadniks with their butter-wouldn't-melt smiles have no problem flouting the law. They rent apartments and turn them into studios. They build without permits, establish hostels and mikvas in violation of municipal ordinances, but the city doesn't block them. Mayor Ron Huldai did denounce Chabad in Ramat Aviv, saying they were harassing the residents. But his job is to stop the harassment, not just talk about it.
Imagine what would happen to me if I went to Kfar Chabad, rented an apartment and dared to open a class to teach a modern interpretation of the Bible, or women's rights or Darwinism. In the evening I'd go out and roam the neighborhood, trying to persuade their children to visit my home on Shabbat to see what a nonobservant Jew does on the day of rest.
Soon enough you'd have to visit me at the burn ward at Ichilov Hospital, if not worse.
And if all that happened, the good souls among us would say: Why did he have to interfere in their way of life? Why provoke them?
But when they come from Kfar Chabad to Ramat Aviv, these same good souls say, in the name of an artificial, suicidal liberalism, "We should understand them," and, "We mustn't oppose others because that is unenlightened racism."
Only they are allowed to sell their rotten goods, rife with ignorance, superstition, terrible discrimination against women, bottomless hatred of Arabs and Gentiles, and nonsense about the Messiah. We may not even protect our values of humanism, education, rationalism, equality, literature and the great inventions of science that changed the face of mankind.
The battle in Ramat Aviv isn't just about the neighborhood's character. It's a battle over Israel's image, and the 800 residents who got up and left their homes and went out to demonstrate last Monday are just the harbingers.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Monday, May 24, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Sixteen years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a flurry of new publications indicates not only how enduring the interest is in his life and legacy, but how potent the minefield is surrounding his mythology.
Writing a biography of a larger-than-life figure is never easy. And when that figure is the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the usual challenges of sifting through sources and evaluating mountains of research material are complicated by internal politics, religious sensibilities, personal loyalties and a lack of reliable first-person information.
Then there’s the Messiah business.
Until now, the only recountings of Schneerson's life have been hagiographies written by Chabad followers. Now there are two new biographies by academics outside Chabad circles, with a third in the works.
New York University Professor Elliot Wolfson came out last fall with “Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson,” an examination of Schneerson’s leadership within the context of Jewish esoteric tradition.
Next month will see the publication of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” by Samuel Heilman of City University of New York and Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, an examination of Schneerson’s early life and what the authors describe as his growing Messianic pretensions.
And Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of several best-selling books on Jewish life and thought, is in the early stages of a book focusing on the source of Schneerson’s charisma and the influence he continues to exert on people’s lives.
The Heilman-Friedman book is generating the most controversy. Written for a lay audience, it frames Schneerson’s mission, and that of the Chabad movement he led, as motivated by Messianism, here defined as the attempt to hasten the Messianic era through human actions. The Messianic mission was so much at the heart of the late rebbe’s leadership, the authors argue, that one cannot be a follower of the rebbe without full commitment to that goal.
The authors take a psycho-bio approach to Schneerson’s life, trying to get inside the man’s head to uncover his motivation -- always a tricky business.
They focus on Schneerson’s 14 years in Berlin and Paris -- the so-called “lost years” between his 1927 marriage to Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, and 1941, when the couple escaped Nazi Europe and arrived in New York to rejoin the Lubavitch court.
Left to his own devices, they write, Schneerson would have preferred to “settle in Paris, become a French citizen, and live as a Jew of Hasidic background pursuing a career in engineering.”
While not explicitly claiming that Schneerson and his young wife fell away from their Chasidic roots, the authors return again and again to the short beard and secular dress Schneerson favored until his arrival in New York, along with other similar details, as evidence of an Orthodox but not haredi lifestyle.
“There is no question he was an observant Jew, but he lived in places where Chasidim didn’t live, and he did things they wouldn’t do,” Heilman told JTA.
It was, the authors write, a combination of survivor’s guilt -- Schneerson was the only member of his close family to escape the Holocaust -- and the improbability of his becoming an engineer in America that led him by the late 1940s to set his sights on a new career goal: succeeding his father-in-law to become the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.
“Mendel’s whole world had collapsed,” they write. “Now he was a childless refugee in America nearly forty years old with little or no English facility, with no job prospects in what had been his chosen field … a man who must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion, and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God.”
When Schneerson assumed leadership of Chabad, the authors continue, he was able to use this worldly experience to push a hitherto small Chasidic movement onto the world stage, launching the global outreach campaign that was to become its hallmark.
Eventually, they assert, Schneerson believed he was “the prophet of his generation,” the man destined to bring on the Messianic era. And because the rebbe was so alone, with no peers to contradict him, they ask rhetorically: Was he “getting lost in a culture of messianic delusion”?
This version of Schneerson’s life contradicts the official Lubavitch version of an unbroken journey toward the mantle of movement leadership and suggests a more nuanced life whose twists and turns might easily have led to a different outcome.
Even before its publication, the book has engendered considerable objections in Chabad circles. One female emissary said some of her colleagues "have been briefed by headquarters" to steer their people away from it.
Lubavitchers are ripping into it, disputing its details as well as its overall thesis, claiming it shows a lack of familiarity with readily available primary sources. According to these critics, the rebbe never trimmed his beard in Europe, he rolled it, and the rebbe attended synagogue regularly in Berlin -- videotaped interviews with Jews who saw him in shul prove it.
And the suggestion that Schneerson spent his European years divorced from Chabad activities?
Rubbish, they charge.
Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a Lubavitch scholar and dean of Britain’s Machon Mayim Chayin, points to a wealth of correspondence that exists between Schneerson and his father showing the two engaging in deep Talmudic and kabbalistic discourse.
“All this is a far cry from" the claim by Heilman and Friedman "that the father was guiding a son who had but an elementary or, worse still, a cursory interest in a Chasidic lifestyle,” he says.
In response, Heilman said in an e-mail to JTA, "We do not deny and indeed suggest that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was a primary religious and Chasidic guide for his son. Indeed, we quote from the letters they exchanged. We particularly note the exchanges around the time of the wedding of the son to the daughter of the Sixth Rebbe."
On the question of the rebbe's beard, Heilman said readers will be able to judge for themselves by looking at photographs of Schneerson, reading comments from his father-in-law and thinking about when those comments were made.
In general, Heilman says, it should come as no surprise that some Chasidim "see things differently from the way we do. But we have presented our viewpoint based on the facts we have gathered."
"Our book documents what we have learned about the years in Europe," Heilman said. "We explain that most of the activities of those years were focused around the primary activity that brought the young Schneersons to Berlin and Paris. That activity was pursuit of education, career, and a life distant from Lubavitcher areas of settlement. When they wanted more of the Lubavitcher life, they either returned to the Sixth Rebbe's court or visited with him when he came to where they were.
"We never question the future Rebbe's knowledge of Chabad or even his interest in it. But as we document, that interest was not always the center of his concerns while he pursued his engineering studies."
Chabad itself, through Jewish Educational Media, is about to release more than 1,200 documents related to Schneerson’s life and work, in English and Hebrew, including his own diaries and important correspondence between him, his father and his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe.
One volume will come out in late June, followed later by others, both in print at online at chabad.org. Chabad sources say this information will “clear up many misunderstandings.”
Wolfson, a philosopher, presents a much different take on Schneerson’s Messianism than sociologists Heilman and Friedman.
The NYU professor portrays Schneerson as having a very deep and radical understanding of Jewish esoterica.
“In his prime, his teaching was very dense, very laden with kabbalistic terminology," Wolfson said. "I don’t know how many really understood him; most were simply mesmerized by his style of presentation.”
Schneerson’s teachings are rife with internal contradictions, Wolfson says, including the subverting of Judaism’s gender hierarchy and the boundaries between the permissible and the non-permissible. But most of this was destined for the realm of theory. Schneerson never intended for them to be actualized -- not in this world.
“What the implications would be sociologically, what a Jewish community would look like if the Torah were superseded by the ‘new Torah’ he spoke about, a kind of law beyond the law, I don’t think he thought that through,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson agrees with Heilman and Friedman that Schneerson’s Messianic vision “was there from the beginning.”
“I feel he is using the rhetoric of a personal Messiah to mark not so much a political change but a change in consciousness that … involves reaching a state of personal perfection that exceeds the need for the Torah as we have it,” he said. “I don’t think he understood the impossibility of his own vision. And he took no steps to remedy that. He took no steps to name a successor. The whole history of Chabad from the Alter Rebbe [18th-century founder of Chabad-Lubavitch] to [Schneerson] is a Messianic line that comes to a close with him.”
Neither book will satisfy Chabad’s strongest critics, nor its closest friends. It remains to be seen whether the deluge of new material about to be published by JEM will cast further light on the most elusive aspects of Schneerson’s life and leadership.
“Like many mythic figures, he was a combination of opposites,” Heilman muses. “But you can’t really be sure what was inside his head. Who was he really?”
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The first people I saw when I climbed out of the Kingston subway station on Friday were men in long black coats, wide-brimmed black hats and beards. was in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn borough that is the "Jerusalem" of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, in which the black suits are the norm. Founded 250 years ago in what was White Russia, the movement survived under the leadership of inspired rebbes (teachers), the latest being Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.
The dilapidated brick building I faced as I exited the subway was his movement's headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway. The interior was a rabbit warren of dingy hallways with sheets of paper - tacked onto various doors - identifying various agencies.
I stepped into one room claimed by Jewish Educational Media, where Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin showed me an array of multimedia archives of talks by the rebbe, plus video of almost every encounter he had had with the thousands of fans who had dropped by to see him on Sundays. He would give each a dollar bill, which they in turn were to contribute to charity.
The rebbe founded an amazing missionary corps of rabbinical couples who established beachheads of Jewish culture worldwide. I met such a couple in South Florida while reporting there in the early 1980s, and I've maintained contact with them to this day. Their synagogue turns 30 years old this month.
Other endings are not so happy. When terrorists attacked Jews in Mumbai in November 2008, it was a Chabad center that was targeted. Nine Jews died there.
I had long wanted to see the nerve center of the Chabad movement. A few hours later, the lower floor of 770, as they call it, overflowed with black-coated men saying prayers in preparation for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Up in the balcony in the women's section, a woman held out a card bearing Rabbi Schneerson's likeness, comparing him to the moshiach, the long-promised Jewish messiah.
A Lubavitch friend and I strolled through the snow up Kingston Avenue, "the Champs Elysees of the Lubavitch world," he told me, with delis, a bakery shop, Judaica stories, flower shops and butchers, all kosher. A glossy tourist brochure at a florist portrays a street map of where 43 shuls, or synagogues, can be found in a 77-square-block area.
Most impressive was the interactive Jewish Children's Museum across Kingston Avenue from the world headquarters. When the little ones enter on the third floor, they go through a walkway portraying the seven days of creation.
There were shofar-shaped microphones in front of an exhibit on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new-year holiday during which the shofar (ram's horn) is blown. There's an olive press to create oil for Hanukkah lamps, a chestful of Purim costumes and a kosher supermarket where children can practice selecting kosher products off the shelves.
Then there is a room devoted to observing the Sabbath, with computers instructing children how to construct a Sabbath menu and a talking wine bottle that describes how to say the kiddush blessing over the wine.
Lots of Christian youth groups visit the museum, I was told, because of its Bible-friendly atmosphere. And certainly, with a surrounding neighborhood and culture geared to making faith attractive, Crown Heights leaves the visitor almost wishing he or she could be Jewish.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Monday night to have a single letter written for her
family and, to her, it was entirely worth the wait.
"I just think it's so special because it's not every day
you get to do this," said the 41-year-old Valley
Cottage resident. "I think it's just a very special thing
to happen to you."
Zion was one of about 100 local Jews to take part in
the completion of the Chabad Jewish Enrichment
Center's new Torah scroll.
Rabbi Chaim Zvi Ehrenreich, director of the Chabad
Center, said that each of the 600,000 letters in the
Torah has a connection to a Jewish soul and that
writing a full Torah is actually considered a mitzvah,
a good deed, required by the Jewish text.
"Most people don't ever do that in its entirety," he
said. "And so today, every family that's here is going
to have the opportunity to have one letter inscribed
The Chabad Center, at 6 Whitefield Road in Chestnut
Ridge, is part of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch
movement to promote Judaism among all Jews and
was opened in 2001, Ehrenreich said. Since its
inception, the group has used older Torah scrolls
on loan from other Jewish organizations during
The Torah scroll completed Monday was donated by
the Tseytin family of Saddle River, N.J. The scroll,
written by a trained scribe in feather and ink, took
about a year to complete. Ehrenreich described the
donation of the scroll as "very, very generous" and
estimated its cost to be between $25,000 and
"The religious meaning of it is beyond that," he said.
"This is the Torah that's handed down from
generation to generation to generation from Mount
Sinai until today. We're going forward now. This is
here for the next 50 years, for the next generation.
It's very, very special."
The ceremony couldn't have come at a more fitting
time. Shavuot, which begins tonight, is the Jewish
holiday during which Moses was given the Torah at
Mount Sinai 3,322 years ago by the Jewish calendar.
Monday's simcha, or celebration, included a series
of traditional Jewish observances such as the
picking up and tying of the Torah. Throughout the
entire event, guests ate and drank, and danced to
Ella Tseytin said she is a spiritual person, but not
overly religious. She said one reason, among many,
that she and her husband, Michael, donated the text
was to honor her father, Yakov Shtivelman, who died
two years ago.
Tseytin said the family wanted to remember
Shtivelman, whom she described as an "amazing
person" who "believed in people," and the family h
oped that the people of Chabad would pray for him
as they read from the new Torah scroll.
She also said that, after consulting with another
rabbi, her family decided that it would be a good
idea to help a Jewish group in need.
"The idea was to do something good for someone
and to feel good doing it," she said. "Maybe it was a
little bit selfish, but the idea was to bring something
good to somebody else."